Kuroiler Chicken Project

Kuroiler Chicken Project

January 3, 2017

January 3, 2017

It was a warm summer day about seven years ago when Jagdev Sharma and two companions visited a village in rural Uganda to talk to the locals about chickens.

A farmer introduced Sharma to several villagers. “I want you to meet somebody who has brought a bird to our country that is going to change our lives,” he said.

“It was a very poignant moment,” said Sharma, a researcher at the ASU Biodesign Institute who has spent the past seven years introducing a fast-growing backyard chicken to rural farmers in Uganda.

This bird is now improving the economic plight of an estimated 142,000 households in Uganda, providing women with new economic opportunities and contributing a steady source of protein to local diets. While the project officially ended last August, the changes that have come with the Kuroiler chicken have been profound. Today, these benefits are poised to spread to other rural areas in Africa.

Magic Chicken

The Kuroiler chicken is a hybrid bird that gains weight faster and carries more weight than local chickens. During a pilot study in 2010, 10 Kuroiler and 10 indigenous chickens were raised together, scavenging for their own food on 100 family farms across Uganda. In six months, male Kuroilers grew to weigh more than five-and-a-half pounds, compared to the indigenous chickens weighing three-and-a-half pounds.

Female Kuroilers produce 150 to 200 eggs during a laying cycle, about five times more than local hens. For one family of six that Sharma met in Uganda, the chickens provide daily eggs for breakfast to five out of six family members. (The family members take turns not eating an egg during the week, to ensure all received sufficient animal protein.)

Kuroilers are well accepted by rural farmers.  Regardless of sex, the coloring of the chickens look very similar to the local chickens and Kuroilers and local chickens coexist peacefully.

Very early on in the project, it became clear that the government of Uganda viewed this project as a means of fighting poverty in rural parts of the country, said Sharma. These birds provide economic opportunities to business owners; income and meat to farmers; and pride to women, who gain independence through the rearing and sale of chickens and eggs.

A Gift of Chickens

It now costs about $15 to purchase 10 3-week-old vaccinated scavenging Kuroiler chickens. For some farmers that initial investment is too much money, so Sharma and colleagues developed a side program called Gift-a-Chicken. Every year around Christmas, people worldwide can donate money to provide a farmer with 20 chickens.

This program has been very successful in helping farmers who can’t afford to purchase the birds on their own. The chickens come with the stipulation that the farmer will use them to earn enough money to buy the next batch, Sharma said.

Some of the chickens were given to HIV-positive women, with and without children.

“The women were very excited to get these birds, not only because they had more eggs or more meat, but because it gave them psychological health to be associated with raising animals, which they did not have before,” Sharma said. “And the kids look forward to getting up in the morning and taking care of the chickens, which helps them get away from the constant fear associated with HIV infection.”

One of the major themes of this project has been empowering women. Within families, the women are primarily responsible for feeding, watering, collecting eggs, cleaning coops and tending to sick birds. The researchers held seven all-day community workshops that focused on profitable rural poultry production, animal husbandry, family nutrition and advancing opportunities for women.


Meet Jagdev Sharma

Veterinarian * Researcher * Teacher * Philanthropist

At a very early age Jagdev Sharma was fascinated by the study of life and animals. While in middle and high school in India he loved learning about biology and zoology. These interests lead to his attending veterinary school, where he realized he wanted to do research that could lead to better health for animals – commercial chickens and turkeys in particular – rather than practice veterinary medicine in the clinic. Avian medicine became his focus when he moved to the University of California, and he has been in that field ever since.

Sharma loves research, but he also loves teaching the next generation of researchers. When he became the University of Minnesota’s endowed chair in avian health in 1988, he was a professor, spending his time doing research and training students.

“That was the job I was really always looking for,” he said. In 2009, Sharma retired from the University of Minnesota and moved to Arizona State University to work at the Biodesign Institute. There he used science and philanthropy to bring the Kuroiler chicken, and all its positive economic impacts, to rural Uganda.

Career Highlight

  • Discovered in ovo - in the egg - vaccination, a system used to immunize the majority of commercial chickens in the United States and all major poultry producing countries in the world today. His discovery allows chickens to build an immunity to pathogens prior to hatching into environments where they are exposed to those pathogens.
  • Interesting fact: His first in ovo experiment did not work. The first group of eggs he vaccinated hatched, but the chickens died soon after. Despite initial failure, and a lack of support from his colleagues, Sharma continued researching. He realized that the eggs he had vaccinated had an unusually high genetic susceptibility to the pathogen he was trying to immunize them with.   

“My proudest moment was, rather than giving up on this idea because the chickens had died, I repeated the experiment using a different kind of chicken, and that second experiment worked like a charm. Beyond my expectations.” – Jagdev Sharma.

Advice to young people

  • “If you have a good idea, don’t let people discourage you from testing it. There will be a lot of naysayers, but don’t give in to them. And never, ever give up.”

What’s next

  • Sharma, whose hobbies include reading, golf, international travel, movies and staying current on his professional work, is growing accustomed to the unstructured freedom of his recent retirement. Even so, he is still actively involved in the Kuroiler chicken project, with hopes of spreading the bird across Africa. Jagdev loves reading, especially fiction, and is considering trying his hand at creative writing. Who knows what his future will hold, he said.
  • “The possibilities are endless, and I want to do things that are really meaningful. I don’t know what those things are at this point, but I am convinced that they are coming,” he said. 

Economics

During the first five years of this project, these chickens became a popular choice with local farmers. Getting chickens from India, where the hybrid was first developed, to Uganda helped combat poverty, but when the initial grant ended in 2014, the researchers hadn’t done enough to make the program permanent.

In 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided an additional $1.4 million dollar supplement for the project to continue through spring 2016. The goal was to get local businesses involved in the production and distribution of the Kuroilers.

“This was decidedly not a gifting project, it’s a business system,” Sharma said. “It is economically self-sustaining, so there must be money made at each step.”

Today, a private producer, Chick Masters Limited, has the capacity to purchase parent chickens from India. The parents then lay eggs, producing 15,000 to 20,000 birds each week. This moves the Uganda program closer to self-sustainability.

The Future

Kuroiler chickens are a hybrid developed by Keggfarms, in Gurgaon, India. The precise genetic lines Keggfarms uses to produce the chickens is unknown outside of the company, so the parent chickens that will lay a Kuroiler chicken must be purchased from India.

“There’s some dependence on the source of these birds in India,” Sharma said. “My push right now is to see if it’s possible to bring the whole germplasm from India to Africa and maintain that here, so that we can produce our own parents in Africa.”

A germplasm is a genetic resource, like animal breeding lines that are kept to maintain genetic information for animal breeding programs.

According to Sharma, having the Kuroiler chicken germplasm on their continent would make the African countries less dependent on another country and would allow them to alter the genetic selection of the bird if they need to make it more suitable to local needs in the future.

“Once the germplasm is maintained in Africa, this then becomes an African bird,” Sharma said. “I’m hoping that they can adapt this and give it an African name, so that it becomes their bird, and that’s something to be proud of.”

Sharma also hopes to see the chicken and the program spread through the rest of the continent, particularly the rural areas of western and central Africa.

“I would like to see this approach reach as many households on the continent as possible, because it can really make a difference,” he said. 

 

Written by: Ally Carr